(Initial entry adapted from Wikipedia)

Chrétien de Troyes was a French poet and trouvère who flourished in the late 12th century. Little is known of his life, but he seems to have been from Troyes, or at least intimately connected with it, and between 1160 and 1172 he served at the court of his patroness Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, perhaps as herald-at-arms (as Gaston Paris speculated). His work on Arthurian subjects represents some of the best of medieval literature.



Chrétien’s Arthurian works include five major poems in rhyming eight-syllable couplets. Four of these are complete: Erec et Enide (c. 1170), Cligés (c. 1176), Yvain also known as Le Chevalier au Lion (The Knight with the Lion), and Lancelot also known as Le Chevalier de la Charette (The Knight of the Cart); but the last thousand lines of Lancelot were written by Godefroi de Leigni, a contemporary poet, apparently by arrangement with Chrétien. Yvain and Lancelot were written simultaneously between 1177 and 1181. Chrétien’s final romance was Perceval, also known as Li Conte du Graal (The Story of the Grail), written between 1181 and 1190, but left unfinished. It was composed for Philip, Count of Flanders, to whom Chrétien was attached in his last years. Chrétien finished only 9,000 lines of the work, but four successors of varying talents added 54,000 additional lines in what are known as the Perceval Continuations. In the case of Perceval, one continuator says the poet’s death prevented him from completing the work. In the case of Lancelot, no reason is given. Some speculate that Chrétien was dissatisfied with the adulterous nature of the Lancelot story given to him to adapt, considering his previous works’ emphasis on the relationships of married couples.

To Chrétien are sometimes also attributed two lesser works: the pious romance Guillaume d’Angleterre (William of England) and Philomela, the only one of his four poems based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses that has survived. Chrétien names his treatments of Ovid in the introduction to Cligés, where he also mentions that he had written a work about King Mark and Iseult. The latter is presumably related to the Tristan and Iseult legend, though it is interesting that Tristan is not named.


The immediate and specific source for his romances is of deep interest to the student; unfortunately, he has left us in the dark as to what these were. Chrétien speaks only vaguely of the materials he used, and though Celtic influence is easily detectable in the stories, there is no direct evidence that he had Celtic written sources. Geoffrey of Monmouth or Wace might have supplied some of the names, but neither author mentioned Erec, Lancelot, Gornemant and many others who play an important role in Chrétien’s narratives. Similarly Chrétien ignores many of the characters prominent in Geoffrey and in Wace. Generally speaking, later romances include many characters found in Chrétien’s works and also ignore many prominent in Geoffrey and Wace.

One is forced to guess about Latin or French literary originals which are now lost or to speculate that Chrétien used oral continental lore that mostly went back to Celtic sources. It is the same problem that faces the student in the case of Béroul, an Anglo-Norman who wrote about 1150. However, Chrétien found his sources immediately at hand, without much understanding of its primitive spirit, but appreciating it as a setting for the ideal society dreamed of, although not realized, in his own day. Chrétien's five romances together form the most complete expression from a single author of the ideals of French chivalry.


Chrétien’s writing was very popular, as evidenced by the high number of surviving copies of his romances and their many adaptations into other languages. Three of Middle High German literature’s finest examples, Hartmann von Aue’s Erec and Iwein and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival were based on Chrétien’s Erec et Enide, Yvain and the incomplete Perceval. The same three romances were abridged as Norse sagas and are also associated with the Mabinogion as Geraint and Enid, Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain, and Peredur, son of Efrawg. Especially in the case of Peredur, however, the connection between the Welsh romances and their source is probably not direct, and has never been satisfactorily delineated. Chrétien also has the distinction of being the first writer whose work survives to mention the Holy Grail (Perceval) and the love affair between Queen Guenevere and Lancelot (Lancelot).

Motifs from Chrétien’s work are to be found again and again in the works of later poets and in the prose Arthurian romances, though it is often hard to discern whether in some cases such motifs may have had independent existence in the unknown Arthurian tales that preceded Chrétien.


These references only cover works that contain most or all of Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian writing or which comment on all of it. For references to the individual works by Chrétien, please look at the articles on those works (when they exist or are somewhat complete).

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English Translation OnlyEdit